FROM THE PASTOR: “BEAR YE ONE ANOTHER’S BURDENS AND SO FULFILL THE LAW OF CHRIST” (GALATIANS 6:2)
The current health care crisis in our beloved country weighs heavily on my heart. Though I don’t expect it will affect me personally (I just went on Medicare), I find myself having to confront a sense of helplessness, confusion and depression because of all those whose lives will be injured by this legislation. (Remember: from the heart …)
I am surprised that I feel this so deeply. I have to confess that, though I have been a church-going Christian all my life, I have never been particularly drawn to the kind of direct service to poor and suffering people that Christ demands and expects of his disciples. No, the familiar words of a hymn by Timothy Dwight (dropped in our latest hymnal) describe what drew me to the church:
Beyond my highest joy
I prize her heavenly ways,
her sweet communion, solemn vows,
her hymns of love and praise.
(“I Love Thy Kingdom Lord”, vs. 4)
As a young child I was drawn to the church’s worship, devotion and music. Wrapped up in all that beauty was a deeply personal assurance of God’s unconditional love for me. That’s what I came for; that’s what I needed. God loves me. I believe it. That settles it.
So, like many in my deeply narcissistic generation, I stopped there. As a white, middle-class kid living in Dallas (still one of the most segregated cities in the world), I never saw poverty or misery, never missed a meal, never went without the medical care I needed. So almost by default I was indifferent to the sufferings of people who weren’t like me, people I never saw.
Meanwhile, I attended a church or churches every week. As a young adult, I became a Lutheran organist, founded several Lutheran choirs, taught music in a Lutheran school. I made a hobby of saving and restoring pipe organs. At seminary, I studied in the Institute for Sacred Music; my thesis project was to direct a play; I majored in liturgics. I sang Rachmaninoff with the Russian Chorus. When eventually I came to ordained ministry it was very much as a worship and music guy.
In the actual practice of ordained ministry, however, I discovered that half the work (the more important half) is with the old and sick and dying, with those who struggle and suffer. The painful transition to life in a nursing home, the relentless approach of death, the anguish of chronic pain, the falling-apart of families – such ministry brought me face to face with problems and situations I would not otherwise have faced (unless and until they happen to me). In the process I had to discover in my own heart the patience, compassion and courage I needed to do this work.
Only twice in 27 years of ordained ministry have I been called to work with people living in deep poverty and squalor, unable to afford food or medical treatment. More often I worked with white, middle-class people who, though facing bankrupting terminal illnesses, still were usually able find a decent level of care for themselves. How often, in the face of a despairing recital of how much they had lost, have I carefully and patiently encouraged my people to count their remaining blessings, and to cherish the promise of the blessed future that God has prepared for all who love him. That’s what ministry is made of, but I secretly suspect that 80% of its value is in my just showing up at all.
Be that as it may, we who do this work never become inured to suffering, we really do carry some of the pain of those we serve. “Bear ye one another’s burdens…” Some experts tell us we’re not supposed to feel other people’s pain, but I’ve never known a minister who didn’t.
So when I hear that many millions of sick and poor people not unlike those I serve are at risk of losing the health insurance that helps them live, I feel it. I feel it in my gut. It is second-hand suffering – perhaps the word is empathy – but it is suffering nonetheless.
To handle it, I have had to look for guidance to my faith, to the gospels. There I find no ambiguity at all: Jesus commands us to relieve the suffering of others, and puts himself inside that suffering. I came to all this by a back door (the one leading to the organ loft) but here I am. Because of Christ, I simply have to stand with vulnerable people. As Luther is supposed to have said, my conscience is captive to the word of God. “Bear ye one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
My problem is compounded as I learn from the news that this withdrawal of health care is being driven by a project to deliver some $800 billion in tax cuts to the wealthiest people on earth. Ouch. For people of faith, this is obviously and completely upside down, as when Mary sings: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 1:52) Et cetera.
Meanwhile, I am called to be a preacher, to speak the gospel boldly and publicly and often, and that task brings its own set of issues and challenges. I think all of us preachers want to speak the truth and to be liked for doing it. But what I am finding is that I hurt for those who suffer, and I suffer for speaking of that hurt.
I thought I had framed this health care horror pretty well when I asked the congregation on Sunday to answer a hypothetical, rhetorical question: You are offered a choice (the choice that our many American millionaires are facing): you can have a $54,000 tax cut, but only if you take away the Medicaid-paid nursing home bed from a penniless Alzheimer’s patient. What would you do? I thought the answer was so obvious that I told the people to cherish the answer they heard in their hearts.
Apparently I was wrong; some said they would take the money. This adds to the sadness I feel. Not only has my path brought me from indifference to empathy for suffering people, but along the way I have learned to love the people who remain as indifferent as I once was. They are indignant with me, and I feel their indignation. I feel it in my gut.
I am approaching the 27th anniversary of my ordination (St. Michael’s Day, 1990. It also happened to be Yom Kippur). Two years ago, my 25th anniversary passed without acknowledgment of any kind by anyone, including my bishop. But just the other day, a gift arrived that would apparently have been given to me at the 2015 synod assembly had I been present (I was in a play that weekend). This really quite lovely gift is an icon of Christ the Good Shepherd: the Lord has a sheep draped across his shoulders. Everybody with 25 years of ordained ministry received one.
What struck me first was the expression on Jesus’ face: he doesn’t look happy. (Could it be that he is not only cherishing the lamb but smelling it…?) Looking deeper into Jesus’ very serious expression in the icon, he seems not so much to be inhaling a bad smell as reflecting the darkness of his own real suffering. He should know. Certainly he knows how much saving that smelly sheep cost him.
What I want you, my dear readers, to understand from all this, is that — in speaking out about people whose sufferings are likely to be increased by our Congress – I am not trying to walk on anybody’s political water. It is because of Christ, for Christ, in Christ that I have to speak: we are called to bear one another’s burdens. It’s who we are. It’s what we do. Bearing one another’s burdens is not optional; it is the urgent business of God’s people.
This is because we, who have been rescued, are being sent to the rescue. We who have been blessed, are being shaped to become the blessing.